You’ve Gotta Measure: Ruth Lange Morton, In Memoriam
Thursday last week my mother called to inform me my grandmother had passed away the night before.
This was no kind of surprise. All summer she’d been increasingly ill, and from July on she’d been set to die “any day.” She was in and out of the hospital and care center until she never left. She had congestive heart failure; she was swollen with fluid and sometimes out of her mind, confused as to where she was and how she’d got there, insisting my mother had taken her against her will and the nurses were to call the police. For a woman who never left the house without her hair done and jewelry on, she left this world with less dignity than she would have chosen for herself.
My grandfather passed two years and a few months prior to her death, and in that time we have all played various games with the impending end of times. We’ve visited often or stayed away in a kind of denial. We tried to glean stories or “one more time” for so many things. Grandma made little of it easy. She’d never been a particularly easy person, but once the chore of keeping Grandpa alive was over, a lot of her fire seemed to go out. She didn’t want company. She didn’t want to go out. Little pleased her. And so no matter what coping mechanism we chose, most of us ended up largely disappointed.
I was one of the unwise souls who chose denial. In my defense I’ve had plenty going on, but mostly, I can admit, I was terrified of what was coming and so tried to pretend it would never arrive. I told myself all year I would call my grandmother, but I never did. I told myself I would visit, but I did so only once. I meant to write so many letters. I sent none. And now she is gone, and the only thing left to do is write this.
My mother tasked me with making a picture-movie as I did for my grandfather when he passed—since I’d known she was dying all summer, I could have anticipated this request and saved myself a lot of last minute work, but of course even if I’d been asked in July, I’d have waited until Thursday to begin. In fact, it was Friday before I did so much as put out a call for pictures. Because I didn’t want to face this. I never wanted this to happen, but it did, and so here I am.
The movie is done now, and I’m printing out the last of the twenty copies I’ll take to the visitation with me. I’m writing this on Sunday night, but this will post as the visitation starts on Monday evening. If you choose to watch the linked movie from 5-7CST you’ll be watching with me and my family, but it’s okay if you don’t, because it’s likely not going to mean much to you, if you weren’t part of this family. I think the plan is, like they did with my grandfather, to play it in the sanctuary over a movie screen like they did for my grandfather. I’d made the movie and meant to pass it out to family, maybe play it on a laptop out of the way or downstairs, but the pastor had been so excited to show off the church’s technology, my grandfather ended up with a movie at his visitation, which he would have loved. In fact, I had my second lucid dream of my life while I was making it, and he came to tell me he did love it very much, and me too.
My grandmother I think would secretly like the movie, but she will think the showing in the sanctuary a little fussy. I know she’d like the content, which is largely her holding babies. God, she loved babies. I was the first grandchild, and I gave her her first grandchild. I named my daughter after my grandmother and my grandmother’s mother, which she loved so much she ordered a little jumper with both names. Sadly, this got into a basket to lend to a friend and the friend never returned it, something I’m sad for often. Especially this week.
My grandmother was young when I was young. She took me to the mall, to the park, made cookies with me when I stayed at their house sometimes for a whole week, for a vacation. I played in the backyard. Ate wafer-thin pancakes at her high-top table. She came to soothe me in the night when I was convinced my grandfather’s snoring was a dragon and helped me get safely to the bathroom and back to bed. She made me lemon meringue pie because it was my favorite, and red velvet cake. She had a candy drawer and it was always full. She kept a toothbrush for me in her bathroom for when I came to visit, which always seemed like the most warm and precious thing to me. And she always had little toys or quiet games in her purse which I was allowed to play with during church, which she always took me to when I visited.
She wasn’t a squishy, kind grandmother–I didn’t really have any of those. She was actually quite baggy—the title comes from her favorite scold if you cooked near her. “You’ve gotta measure.” But she was stable and solid and omnipresent. She was at every major event in my life. She mailed me cookies weekly while I was in college, so many I had to share them with my dorm floor and professors (and thereby she won me many friends). Later I learned she was why we had food and clothes, sometimes, during some rough parts of our life. And when my nuclear family fell apart first with constant moving and then due to divorce, Grandma and Grandpa’s house became the stable, safe place. The home that would always be. The place we could always go to be safe. And we’ve been fortunate because it’s been exactly that for a long, long time.
My siblings and I have all been quietly aching with one another. One won’t be able to make it back, as she lives in Vienna. She sent along this drawing she made, which when it arrived in my inbox wrecked me utterly. It’s a drawing of their house, the way it has always been, always, with someone slipping in the garage door. That person is only a few steps from the kitchen screen door, and beyond there is heaven. A mixture of smells: clean smells, food smells, grandparent smells. There will be banging of things on the stove, or the sink. Grandma will turn around and smile, a patient smile. From a room beyond, Grandpa will say, “Well, look who’s here!” and will demand you come give him a hug. Wherever you’ve come from, whatever has been happening in your life, it doesn’t matter, because right now you’re at 2240 Brookland Drive, NE. You’re at Grandma and Grandpa Morton’s house, and everything will be all right.
Except, of course, it hasn’t been all right for two years, and now that kitchen will always be quiet. The smells will be wrong. Only for a little while longer will it have Grandma and Grandpa’s things in it at all. Then it will be someone else’s house.
My grandmother’s death is not a surprise, but it is a shock and it is a terrible, aching pain inside me. For her suffering, I’m glad she’s had release, and I can hardly begrudge her the long, rich live she lived. I know how rich because I’ve just spent three days putting together the photographic documentation of it. A lot of babies sat on that woman’s lap, which is just the way she wanted it. She didn’t travel far and wide. She didn’t want to. She wanted to have babies and hold babies and take care of people she loved. This she did, and very well.
I’m putting in the last DVD to burn, though part of me wants to keep burning until the stack of fifty in front of me is gone. I want to toss them out and start the movie over. I want to think of a reason to delay the funeral. I want magic to happen and I want them to be sixty again, or for them to have the bodies of sixty-year-olds and live until the moment I die.
I am sorry I didn’t visit or call or write. I’m also not. Because the truth is they haven’t been the same for a long time. They were both sick. And every time I visited I saw their death coming, and I foolishly thought it would be easier if I didn’t watch it happen. I know they aren’t completely gone, that they have left us with a large, healthy family. That we are capable of making a new place home. I know I’ve done a pretty good job with my own house and my own family. I closed the video by saying “thank you for showing us the way home,” and I meant it. They more than anyone else taught every one of the family members they touched what a home looked and felt like. They showed us the dance steps. Now they wait in the wings, cheering us on from somewhere a little further away.
But it still hurts. It hurts more than I normally allow things to let hurt me. I’m expert at turning away from anything potentially wounding, at least emotionally. I resist attachments so I don’t get hurt. But I never managed with these two. No matter what kinds of walls I tried to put up, these two just loved me anyway. Whether I came for dinner or not. Whether I wrote or not. Whether I sent the thank you notes or not. They got way deep inside even when I tried not to let them.
I’ve been bursting into tears in the middle of sentences for days. I’ve wept while writing this until snot ran out of my nose. I won’t be surprised if I sob so hard at some point in the next 48 that I vomit. Because the truth is despite any distancing I might have tried to do, any logic I’d tried to use, Ruth Ellen Morton and her husband got way, way under my skin and all the way into not just my heart but the core of my being. And their loss cuts so much.
I’m going to do my best to take up their mantle and build that kind of home for my family, their children, and all my friends and loved ones. The safe place that stays, that always is. But right now, this week, I’m going to cry. Especially when I walk into that house tomorrow, full of lots of family and noise and yet so horribly quiet and empty.
I love you Grandma and Grandpa. I hope now that you can see everything I tried to hide from you that you still are proud of me. I will miss you for the rest of my life.
(If you watch the video: the song she’s brokenly singing to the baby is the one she always sang to all of us when we were kids. She sang it like a lullaby, but in making the video I found out it was actually a 1940s pop song. My grandmother’s rendition was so much better.)